Let the cooking begin: Meet the cooks tackling the Cook of the Week Challenge 2020
Let me introduce you to the eight intrepid cooks vying for the title of Cook of the Year in the Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge for 2020.
Our eight cooks are Rick Kennedy, James Knupp, Amanda Marron, Judy Monaco, Joseph Peabody, Mary Reidy, Timothy Rogers and Laurie Wood.
It's no surprise that the television cooking competition "Chopped" was listed as a favorite program by many of them. That's how the Cook of the Week Challenge usually works, we start with eight cooks, and in weekly elimination rounds, we whittle the number down to four and hold a live cook-off finale.
This year, due to precautions caused by COVID-19, an in-person cook-off event is out of the question, as is the finale audience of 400 food lovers.
This year, the contest is an all-or-nothing challenge. Cooks are given a list of ingredients they must use to create a recipe that we'll put before a panel of guest judges. The judges' comments will accompany the results in the paper on Nov. 4.
Cooks are given grocery gift cards to purchase ingredients to create a dish. The one caveat: All the dishes must include canned mackerel with lemon and olive oil from King Oscar, kale courtesy of Northern Illinois Food Bank, couscous and a protein of the contestant's choice.
Except for using the listed ingredients, this contest has no rules. Cooks can come up with breakfast, lunch or dinner recipes, snacks, soups or salads -- anything. The judges will be evaluating recipes on the use of the critical ingredients, creativity, ease of preparation, appearance and perceived taste.
The goal is to devise a delicious dish that other home cooks might whip up in their kitchens.
Today, you can read a little about our contestants. Next week, you can see what four of the cooks came up with using the ingredients. On Oct. 21, you'll be able to read about what the other four cooks crafted.
Each week, look over the recipes and be sure to vote for your favorite at events.dailyherald.com. Each group of four cooks will have a week's worth of voting time. There will be a prize for being the Reader's Choice.
Meet the contestants
Newly retired with more time on his hands, Rick Kennedy of St. Charles has taken on the cooking duties for his wife and sons, who range in age from 17 to 24.
"All were home during the quarantine," he said. "That is what really accelerated my interest in cooking."
His style of cooking, as he describes it, is pretty traditional. "My wife is Italian, and I like to make her mom's (who was Sicilian) family dishes," he said.
Cooking gives him a creative outlet.
"I think what I love most about it is bringing all kinds of ingredients together and combining them with some love, time, heat and/or refrigeration; you get to create something," he said.
Having more time is one reason he wanted to join the Cook of the Week Challenge this year.
What is he hoping to get out of the contest? Plenty.
"I am really looking forward to it, even though it will be scaled back this year," Kennedy said. "I think we are all learning to live life a little differently than we used to, so all we can do is make the best of it, and that is what I plan to do with this experience. I am also looking forward to learning some tips and tricks from the other cooks."
James Knupp of Elgin says his favorite ingredient to cook with is a spice: smoked paprika. "I like to use it in flavoring sauces and in spice rubs," he said.
His cooking style is what you might call scratch-eclectic. "I like to utilize more uncommon ingredients, especially proteins. I also like to use whatever fresh ingredient I can, making as much from scratch as is possible or reasonable. I like to do things like go to the farmers market and just be inspired by what I find."
And Knupp enjoys sharing what he creates. "I love things like potlucks or a dinner party I'm hosting because I get to share my passion with others," he said.
He says he usually cooks for himself, a date or friends. "In non-pandemic times, my favorite thing to do is to cook a big meal for my friends and have everyone over."
As for cooking shows, Knupp enjoys "Binging with Babish" on YouTube. "It's been great for both making really unique dishes, but also nailing staple and classic dishes."
"Being part of the Cook of the Week Challenge would allow me the chance to share what I make with a lot more people and show them that they don't need professional training to cook great food."
Knupp says he's looking forward to the contest. "I'm hoping to get more of a challenge, being forced to figure out how to work with what I'm given rather than being able to use anything I want to."
Amanda Marron of Wheaton grew up watching cooking shows on PBS, "back before Food Network was a thing," she said.
Marron describes her approach to food as deceptive cooking: She likes to make dishes that look complicated and time-consuming, even when neither is true.
She loves cooking. "I love that it is a way to be creative -- an artistic outlet -- but that you also get to eat it when you are done," Marron said.
"Mostly, I just cook for myself, but I love cooking for friends and family. Even when I am just cooking for myself, I go all out," she said. "I'm my own guinea pig so that when I do cook for others, I can deliver them something amazing."
This year's Cook of the Week Challenge looks different with its one-and-done approach, but she's up for the contest.
"I love a competition because it makes people think outside the box and challenges them to do their best. I want to see how creative I can be and what others will do as well. I want to see if I have the chops to compete against others and actually succeed because success equals more praise."
Judy Monaco from Glendale Heights calls her style of cooking "free form." And she loves the flavor of thyme. "I used to use thyme only if it was a recipe ingredient. Now I use it on fish, in salad, sauces and gravies. I also grow it in my garden," she said.
"I create as I go along. After checking my pantry and refrigerator, I create from there, to see what different ingredients would make a delicious and creative meal."
Usually cooking for her husband and herself, Monaco says her husband is always there for her. "He is very supportive and will try anything. He is my most honest critic."
Monaco says she's come a long way as a cook.
"When I first married, I had zero cooking experience, but thanks to a great mother-in-law, she gave me great knowledge," Monaco said. "I just took off from there and found out I love to cook and experiment with different foods."
About this year's contest, she says she's ready to take up the challenge. "Even though the format is different, I look forward to another challenge and a chance to create something new that will be delicious."
Joseph Peabody of Arlington Heights relies on fresh herbs for his cooking.
"I love cooking with fresh herbs and incorporating them into my dishes as much as possible. They add a freshness and brightness to the dish. Some of my favorites are cilantro, basil, chives and mint."
He describes his approach to cooking as nutritious and healthy and sees the whole process as a celebration.
"It can be celebrating a tradition like making Grandmother's famous mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner. Or celebrating something new by trying foods, spices or techniques used in different cultures," he said. "Cooking is truly a celebration of life."
As an emergency room physician, Peabody says he works under pressure and has to improvise every day.
"I think the Cook of the Week Challenge will inspire me to use those same skills to create some unique, healthy and delicious dishes that many would enjoy," he said.
This year's contest is down to creating one recipe, and Peabody says he is up to the challenge.
"Writing a recipe is intriguing to me as I usually pretty much 'wing it' while cooking with a dash of this and a pinch of that until it tastes right to me," he said. "I am also excited to work with ingredients I may not have used previously and discovering new tastes and techniques."
He's usually cooking for his family, but with an uncertain work schedule, he gets the whole family involved when he can.
"I am not always home for dinner or holidays, and I really cherish our family's mealtimes together. Many times my wife and sons and I will all get involved in the preparation together. We have created some special memories along the way (especially when things have turned out less than perfect). It is also great to pass on some cooking skills and an appreciation of the joy of cooking to our sons."
Mary Reidy of Mount Prospect says she was a bit apprehensive, but intrigued, too, about entering the Cook of the Week Challenge this year.
"I am quite nervous, but I am looking forward to the mystery ingredients. I think this new one-and-done format will be a challenge -- so I'll give it a shot," she said.
As an empty nester, Reidy usually cooks for her husband and herself, but she cooks for family and friends as well, and uses fresh herbs and vegetables from her garden. "I cook crowd-pleasers for entertaining and try new recipes on a few guinea pig family members," she said.
Reidy says she's up for learning new approaches to cooking, and she savors eating a variety of foods.
"My children have been adopting more vegetarian and plant-based eating, so I have been adjusting menus and learning along the way," she said. "I consciously try to learn new cooking techniques and ingredients as well. When I am cooking, I am in my happy place -- whether it is in my kitchen or especially outside at my grill.
"Meals, parties and holidays are where my family and friends come together to eat, converse, laugh, and rate my food," she said. "A family joke during a meal: 'It's like a five-star restaurant around here!'"
Timothy Rogers of Carol Stream says the COVID-19 pandemic has put an end to his business travel. So he's cooking all the time at home, and he loves it.
He's usually cooking for his wife, Theresa, son Aidan, 18, and daughters Lucy, 16, and Brigid, 14.
Rogers says he enjoys trying new things in the kitchen, and his favorite ingredient is garlic.
"Like onions, it is one of those ingredients that is extremely versatile and one that finds its way into almost every cuisine."
You might say Rogers takes an explorer's approach to cooking. "I love to try new things," he said. "I rarely make the same thing the same way more than once. I like to tinker and experiment. I like to try new techniques from roasting to smoking to poaching to sous vide. I will try them all."
Rogers also relishes the hands-on experience.
"I enjoy learning new styles, techniques and recipes. Knowing flavor combinations and techniques is not enough -- you need to be able to apply that knowledge. I love how the sum of a recipe is almost always greater than the individual parts, and omission or modification of an ingredient, however seemingly small, can have a significant effect on the outcome of the dish."
Even though the Cook of the Week Challenge has changed this year, Rogers says he's up for it.
"While the format may be different, the spirit of the contest remains the same -- do your best with the ingredients you get. I am looking forward to seeing what I and the other contestants create."
Laurie Wood of Palatine says her favorite ingredient to cook with is eggplant.
"Since eggplant can be a very healthy dish, I often sautée it with squash, zucchini and tomato sauce for an easy and delicious ratatouille," she said.
As for her cooking approach, Wood says she's a recipe reader, but she might combine two dishes into something new. "I read cookbooks like novels and enjoy putting together several recipes to create a completely different dish."
"Since I still cook for young adults, I have side 'add-ons.'" She says she makes a general pasta, has sautéed vegetables, cooked meat or shrimp and two different sauces in separate bowls. "My family can add as much of the sides as they want and enjoy a delicious meal personalized to their taste preferences. My husband is a very adventurous eater, so I never have to worry about pleasing him. As long as dinner is being served, he will be at the table ready for anything," Wood says.
She was encouraged to enter this year's contest by her sister, Lynn Daugerdas. "I have followed the Cook of the Week Challenge and have attended the cook-off finale for years," she said. "I always try to pick a contestant who I want to make it to the finale at the beginning of the contest and see how far he or she goes. I want to see if I can keep up with these creative, foodie contestants."